I slept most of the flight from San Francisco to Vancouver. I was up until one thirty in the morning the night before, and had to wake up at five in order to get to the airport on time, so I was exhausted. Upon arriving in Vancouver I shuffled half-asleep to the customs station, which I had to go through even though I was only connecting through Vancouver, not stopping there.
The agent asks my name, where I'm going, all the usual stuff. I reply, giving short answers. I always give short answers in customs because first, I'm sort of offended at how they treat you as though you're some kind of criminal, and two, because I figure the agent just wants to hear a succint answer and get on with her day.
"Where are your other bags?"
"I don't have any."
"What are you going to do in China?"
"I don't know."
"How much money do you have?"
"Around two hundred dollars."
"How are you going to support yourself in China?"
"I have a debit card."
"And how much money do you have access to through that?"
"That seems like personal information. Do I really have to tell you how much money is in my bank account?"
I reluctantly tell her. She then explains that Canada has an agreement with China, and that if China turns me away for any reason, Canada needs to know that I would be able to support myself there while arranging to get back to the United States. She says it in a slightly hostile tone, but I'm actually grateful for the explanation. I still don't like that I have to tell some customs agent how much money I have, but the logic makes sense.
I'm ready to go through, but she turns me away, saying I have to be questioned by another agent. She gives me directions.
At this point I think it's sort of funny. I'm obviously not doing anything wrong so I assume that she's just upset because I questioned her authority to ask a question about my finances and she's sending me through the ringer a bit just because she's pissed off. No big deal, really.
I get down to the questioning area and it's empty besides a couple interpreters. An older agent comes up, asks why I'm there and says he'll get the agent who will be questioning me. He's friendly and checks my boarding pass to assure me that I'll have enough time to make my flight. At this point my flight is two hours away, so I'm a little confused as to how it could even be close.
After waiting fifteen minutes, another officer approaches me. I say hello and ask how he's doing. He replies "good" in a gruff tone, and doesn't return the pleasantry. He's taller than I am, well built, and has a military style haircut. He begins to ask the same sorts of questions the other agent asked.
"What are you doing in China?"
"I don't know yet."
This infuriates him, or at least prompts him to pretend he's infuriated.
"THAT MAKES NO SENSE. WHY ARE YOU LYING TO ME?"
I'm totally shocked by this response. I've probably crossed borders 50-100 times in my life, and have never gotten a reaction like this. There was one time in the normal customs line in London where they found our small amount of luggage suspect, and another time on a train into Canada where the agent was asking me very personal questions in a loud voice in public, but nothing this antagonistic.
"I'm not lying to you."
"Yes you are! No one just goes to China with no plans. It makes no sense. Where are you staying?"
"I have a friend in Shanghai that I'll stay with at first. I may stay in Shanghai, I may go to Yunnan, or I may go to some other random place."
"What's in Yunnan?"
"Pu erh tea."
"You're going to go all the way to another city just to drink tea?"
"I might. Yunnan is famous for Pu erh tea. A friend went there and had a good time, visited some farms and stuff like that."
"So now you might visit a farm?"
"I don't know yet, like I said. I might."
"Why would you visit a farm?"
"Because they grow tea there."
None of this is satisfying to him in any way. If he wasn't genuinely angry initially, he definitely is now. He makes me take my bag and dump everything out. He goes through the pockets of my jacket and opens up my deodorant. He even takes my deck of cards out and flips through them on both sides, as if to make sure they're not a trick deck. My shorts have a small inside pocket. As he searches them he comes across the pocket, finds that something is stuffed into it, and pulls it out. Forty Mexican pesos-- about $3. Probably not the score he was hoping for.
He asks why I would go to Mexico and who I hung out there with. I tell him. He asks how people live on a resort there, and I say that they do Yoga and get free rooms. He tells me that they're working illegally, as if this is some crime on my part. Maybe they are, sir, I don't really know.
Then we get to my laptop. Does it have a password, he asks. I say that I'm not sure. He explodes.
"Why are you being evasive? Why are you lying? What are you hiding? I asked you a simple question and you won't answer it."
I try to explain that I'm not sure if the computer is off or just in sleep mode, and that there would be a password if it was off. Not a good answer. We turn on the laptop and there is, in fact a password. What is it, he asks?
I tell him that I'm not comfortable giving out my password. My computer has face login through the web cam, and I offer to unlock it that way. Unacceptable. I offer to type it in.
"If you don't tell me your password, your laptop will be impounded and I will keep you here so that you miss your flight. You'll go back to San Francisco, most likely."
I actually consider taking a principled stand and refusing to give my password. I think it's outrageous that I'm being forced to divulge it. If I knew for a fact that I would actually get the laptop back, I think I would have refused. On the other hand, if the option is to give my password, keep the computer, and go to China vs losing the computer and going home, I'd rather just give it. Barely.
I tell him my password and he writes it down. I feel completely violated. He tries to type it in on the dvorak keyboard, but it doesn't work. The password is so burned into muscle memory that I don't actually know what it is. I'm guessing at caps and numbers when finally the "computer expert" next to him says to just allow face login. I tilt the computer towards me and it unlocks.
The computer guy takes my computer, my camera's memory card, and my USB drive with him into a different room, out of my site. The angry guy goes with him, leaving me standing in front of all of my belongings on a metal table. No explanation of what they're looking for or where they're going with my stuff.
The angry guy comes back with my passport and starts interrogating me about the places I've been. He's fixated on a week I spent in Columbia two years ago. He asks why I've been to Canada so much. I'm tempted to say it's because they're so welcoming. He asks about Mexico again, Colombia again, and Peru. Of particular interest to him is the fact that I went to Peru, came back, went to Mexico, came back, and now I'm going to China.
He asks me to show him my bank account on my phone. I can't. The computer guy comes back and allows me to go to my bank website on the computer. Many transactions are scrutinized. He goes back a couple months where I sold two Rolexes on eBay and got Paypal payments for a bit over $3000. I can't remember what exactly those transactions are, and he's pissed about that.
"It's a lot of money. You should know what it is."
Again, he leaves. Fifteen minutes later he comes back and is more incensed than ever.
"Okay, here's the situation. You are lying to me. You refuse to tell the truth. You are evading my questions. For you to get to your flight you're going to need to give me acceptable answers and let me know what's going on here. All of your answers so far have been unacceptable, so if we keep going like this, you're not getting on that flight."
"I'm not lying to yo--"
"YES YOU ARE!"
"I think there's some sort of misunde---"
"NO. There is no misunderstanding. I am doing my job and you are lying to me."
"I'm not lying."
He asks more questions, and I give really long answers to them.
"Tell me again what you were doing in Colombia."
"Well, two years ago Jet Blue had a deal where you could pay $499 for a month of unlimited flights. I visited my friends around the US, and Colombia was the most interesting place that Jet Blue goes, so I went. I have a blog, and I mentioned on it that I was going there. One of my readers offered to put me up, so I went. While I was there I ate at some good restaurants, visited a gold museum, went horseback riding in the countryside..."
He notices that I've been to Japan a lot of times and asks about that. More long answers. Same with Thailand and China. He leaves again.
The computer guy, who has been aloof but pleasant, walks by me to help another group. Offhandedly he asks if I have three books on Amazon. Yes, I do.
"Well, things are starting to make more sense. We're just trying to make sense of everything, and that helps. I mean... you know that you fit the profile."
"I do? What profile?"
"Oh, a drug smuggler. I mean, come on. Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Japan." (Japan?)
These guys think that I'm a drug smuggler. For the first time, I can see how it may look. I've been to a handful of central and south american countries recently with no real good reason. I have less than one change of clothes. I'm resistant to authority. From poker playing I have cash deposits in my bank account. Not the amounts I'd assume a drug smuggler would have, but still.
"Wow. I thought this was because I asked the first agent why I had to tell her how much money I made."
"You have to admit, your style of traveling is highly unusual."
"Yep. I guess it is."
The angry guy comes back and gruffly tells me to pack my stuff. No apology for assuming I was a drug smuggler and invading my privacy. No apology for being wrong. I decide to be a nice guy.
"I apologize if you felt like I was being evasive. I really wasn't. I'm used to giving short answers at customs just to keep things moving, assuming that they'll ask for more detail if they want it. I just want you to know that I wasn't trying to be disrespectful to you or your job."
"Well, now you know that's not a good approach."
A charmer to the end. I packed up my stuff and was forced to go back through security. After an interrogation lasting over an hour, I made it to my gate with ten minutes to spare. No time to take a shower at the airport club or to get a better-than-airline-food meal.
So what did I learn from this? From now on I will give definite answers, even if they aren't accurate. Don't know what I'm doing in China? I'll just say I'm staying in Shanghai the whole time, visiting a friend. I very rarely plan what I'll do on trips, but apparently that makes customs agents suspicious. I will pick some random amount of money to claim I have access to, and just offer the information immediately. Five thousand dollars should work. Enough that I'm not going to be leeching off social services, but not enough that they'll start thinking I have drug smuggler money. The question is nebulous anyway-- does it count credit cards? Retirement accounts? Stocks? Passive income? Reasonable answers like "Well, it depends what you mean by accessible" are suspicious.
I will also close all of the windows on my laptop before doing a border crossing. I had journal entries, email, and my productivity spreadsheet open. I may also install something to monitor the computer, and turn it on before I land. I have nothing illegal or incriminating on my computer, but I hate the idea that they can just snoop through my stuff. I've already changed my password to a long sentence, which I'll only use for turning the computer on.###
Photo is from the Khmer Rouge S21 prison. Seems moderately relevant.